Story Magazine - First Quarter, 2006
Rural Synod Awards Its First Full-Year Scholarship to Senior Seminarian
by Nicole Summers, Communication Specialist
"I now have more freedom to serve a rural congregation," Michael Hanson, a senior in Luther Seminary's Master of Divinity program, said. He is the first seminarian to receive a full one-year tuition scholarship from the Southwestern Minnesota Synod. He and his wife, Martha, a senior seminarian, are excited about their calls to ordained ministry and the opportunity to serve in a rural setting. "We feel very much supported in our calls," said Hanson. "And we are thankful for the synod's support."
Sensing that debt significantly contributes to the pastor shortage in rural congregations, the synod appointed a task force to examine the impact debt has on pastors' ministry options. At the end of the study, the synod revamped its scholarship program to help further reduce the educational debt of seminarians who want to serve rural congregations. The synod's $70,000 scholarship fund has more than quadrupled in size in the past year. And the synod has raised $162,000 in future gifts through charitable gift annuities and trusts. In addition to the full scholarship, the synod gave 10 partial scholarships to senior seminarians this year. I plans to award two full scholarships to senior seminarians with a desire to serve in rural ministry.
"The average first-call pastor in the Southwestern Minnesota synod has $50,000 in debt," said Bill Elmstrom, planned giving coordinator and director of the synod's endowment fund. "The scholarships show the synod cares about pastors and their families. This is important because pastors can better serve their call without the worry of their family's welfare." Congregations and individuals in the synod generously provided the funds. A matching gift from Thrivent Financial for Lutherans contributed to the fund's growth. And, the synod worked with the ELCA's Fund for Leaders in Mission to administer the scholarships.
A Rural Ministry Challenge
The challenge rural communities face is not only getting pastors, but also keeping them. Elmstrom compares this situation to that of a farmer sensing a call to steward the land but can't because of a lack of money. "Sometimes it's easy to forget that pastors are human too." He says it's also easy to think pastors who are unable to accept a rural call because of high debt are deliberately denying an important call to ministry.
First-call pastors who go ahead and serve in rural synods often are able to defer their debt for a short time. When the deferment period is up, they have to consider another call because they need to pay down their debt. "Many pastors will get started in rural areas and then move to the city where the pay is higher and they can get better retirement support," said Elmstrom. In answer to this situation, the synod started an educational debt reduction fund for first-year pastors. "The synod wants to bring more first-call pastors in with the lowest amount of debt as possible and then help them feel better about their ministry by helping them with their educational debt."
The Southwestern Minnesota Synod is not alone in offering scholarships to seminarians who want to serve a rural congregation. It joins Luther Seminary and other ELCA seminaries, synods and organizations across the country. "We're grateful the Southwestern Minnesota Synod is providing generous scholarships to help reduce the problem of student debt," said Kathy Hansen, vice president for seminary relations at Luther Seminary. "The national church, through the Fund for Leaders in Mission, and several synods are taking significant leadership on this issue." Hansen says that as Luther Seminary and these partners continue to increase the amount of support they provide, more graduates will be able to serve where the church needs them most.
How Luther Seminary Supports Students
Last year, Luther Seminary awarded over $2.1 million in seminary grants and scholarships. An additional $1.2 million in support from local congregations for specific students and $68,500 from programs like the ELCA's Fund for Leaders in Mission and the Fund for Theological Education left, on average, a third of tuition plus significant living expenses (around $13-25,000 annually) to be covered through employment, loans and other sources of income.
In addition to grants and scholarships, the seminary invites congregations to support students through its Adopt-a-Seminarian program. Congregations, either alone or in partnership with others, can "adopt" a student by providing half ($4,500) or full ($9,000) tuition for one year.
This year the seminary will continue to increase the amount of student scholarships. Yet, even with this increase, student debt continues to grow and affect students' ministry options. "Leaders called to ministry make a tremendous leap of faith when they come to seminary," Hansen said. "They work hard at both their studies and in part-time jobs.
"Unlike graduates from professional schools in law and medicine, seminary graduates do not have the prospect of earning high incomes that will allow them to pay back high levels of debt. Adequate financial aid ensures that students complete their studies faster, graduate sooner and leave with less debt. The church benefits from all these things."
For more information about student scholarships and the Adopt-a-Seminarian program at Luther Seminary, contact the Office of Seminary Relations at 651-641-3448 (local), 888-358-8437 (toll-free), or visit www.luthersem.edu/gifts